By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
In January, the Office of Education Technology, a unit of the U.S. Department of Education, released its 2017 National Education Technology Plan Update (NETP). The update is not a reasoned meditation on the use of education technology informed by our nations vast academic research infrastructure. It is a polemic hyping the use of technology in America’s classrooms. Director Joseph South, from the Office of Educational Technology US Department of Education, concludes his introductory remarks:
“… it is now more apparent than ever that the courageous efforts of educators to embrace the role of thoughtful, reflective innovators who work collaboratively with each other and alongside their students to explore new learning models, new digital learning environments, and new approaches to working, learning, and sharing is essential if we want technology to be an effective tool to transform learning.” (Page 2)
The question is, do we want digital learning environments? Are they conducive to creative and healthy development? Are there dangers involved with this approach? Are we moving along a technologically driven path without the requisite caution? The NEPT is not troubled by such doubts.
I do not oppose the use of technology in America’s classrooms. I taught high school math and physics, and at one time I worked in Silicon Valley as a researcher in the magnetic recording industry. However, the best use of technology in school settings is developed by education professionals and not by technology product developers. The educator’s goal is better pedagogy. The developer’s goal is a new widget (often with a short lifespan) that wins in the marketplace.
Audrey Watters has been writing about technology in education for most of the 21st Century. Audrey’s latest book is “The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology” published in 2016. He made these remarks to a class at MIT on September 7.
“I don’t believe we live in a world in which technology is changing faster than it’s ever changed before. I don’t believe we live in a world where people adopt new technologies more rapidly than they’ve done so in the past. (That is an argument for another talk, for another time.) But I do believe we live in an age where technology companies are some of the most powerful corporations in the world, where they are a major influence – and not necessarily in a positive way – on democracy and democratic institutions. (School is one of those institutions. Ideally.) These companies, along with the PR that supports them, sell us products for the future and just as importantly weave stories about the future.”
I quote Watters here because his statement about the major influence of technology companies is completely borne out by a cursory read of the NETP 2017. It is not just in the US where the outsized influence of these giant technology companies is being felt. In August, the Open Review of Education Research Journal published a paper from New Zealand by Noeline Wright and Michael Peters. In response to a 2007 document from the New Zealand Ministry of Education they wrote:
“This document advocates e-pedagogy, social learning, and student-centered approaches. The lure of what digital technologies can offer in properly constructed learning contexts masks some of the ways in which it can be interpreted to fit a neo-liberal, privatised, deprofessionalised education agenda. This is an agenda using big data to create mastery learning feedback loops for learners. It is cheaper, more efficient and involves fewer teachers. However, a key issue with this kind of thrust is that the capabilities needed for successful citizenship and employment centre on creativity, adaptability, critical thinking and nuanced understandings of complex ideas. Mastery learning, instead, is often focused on providing behaviourist instant feedback, rewarding content knowledge rather than an ability to argue, critique, create and repurpose. This is because content ‘facts’ can be quantified and machine assessed.”
A Look at the NETP for 2017
This graphic from Page 11 is captioned with, “A key part of non-cognitive development is fostering a growth mindset about learning. A growth mindset is the understanding that abilities can be developed through effort and practice and leads to increased motivation and achievement.” (Proof?)
The next sentence informs readers, “The U.S. Department of Education has funded several growth mindset–related projects, including a grant to develop and evaluate SchoolKit, a suite of resources developed to teach growth mindset quickly and efficiently in schools.”
Once a student demonstrates they can pass the government-sanctioned attitude test, they can get a micro-credential. Today, in China, one can earn citizenship merit badges. Behavior badging in China is explained in this video about gamifying good citizenship. Behavior modification is now a part of micro-credentialing promoted by the NETP.
The NETP is organized into five topics: Learning, Teaching, Leadership, Assessment, and Infrastructure. By the time the reader gets to Assessment and Infrastructure some of the material gets redundant. Each topic is addressed with a set of assertions supported almost exclusively by anecdotal evidence. After assertions are made, a report on how some school or district has successfully implemented the technology. Page 1 of the plan informs readers:
“This document contains examples and resource materials that are provided for the user’s convenience. The inclusion of any material is not intended to reflect its importance, nor is it intended to endorse any views expressed, or products or services offered. These materials may contain the views and recommendations of various subject matter experts as well as hypertext links, contact addresses and websites to information created and maintained by other public and private organizations. The opinions expressed in any of these materials do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education.”
This disclaimer is completely disingenuous. This is exactly what the document does; it promotes these materials. On page after page the services and products endorsed invariably have large endowments from the technology industry. For example, a page 11 statement,
“For the development of digital citizenship, educators can turn to resources such as Common Sense Education’s digital citizenship curriculum or the student technology standards from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).”
When we look at the ISTE website, we learn that Dallas Dance the former Baltimore superintendent of schools who is under criminal investigation is on the board of directors. At the site you can read all about the benefits of being a corporate member of ISTE. We also discover that:
“Year around sponsor Microsoft Corporation is Supporting bold education reform, Microsoft’s mission is simple: support bold education reform to help prepare students for today’s highly competitive workforce, and support our U.S. educators with software and programs that fuel powerful learning and digital-age skills.”
In addition, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also kicked in $1.4 million to ISTE.
Common Sense says it’s “the nation’s leading independent non-profit organization dedicated to empowering kids to thrive in a world of media and technology.” It also claims that 40 percent of its support comes from private foundations. In January the Gates’ foundation gave them another quarter of a million dollars. They have many working relationships with tech companies and an interesting board of directors including: Manny Maceda, Partner, Bain & Company; Gene T. Sykes Managing Director, Goldman, Sachs & Co.; and Bill McGlashan, Managing Partner, TPG Growth.
It is possible to make a count of all of the similar kinds of examples to these in the NETP but it takes a while. In another claim, the NETP states, “Technology access when equitable can help close the digital divide and make transformative learning opportunities available to all learners.” (Page 17) The example given is from San Francisco:
[Black Girls Code], founded in 2001 by Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer, aims to “increase the number of women of color in the digital space by empowering girls of color to become innovators in STEM subjects, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology.”
How can I find fault here? To start with STEM is and always was a fraud. As for BGC, there is a reason that Verizon, Adobe, Salesforce, AT&T, Google, Oracle, and others are giving BGC money. The New York Times reports that coding is being pushed into schools by the Titans of tech. There is an obvious downside to this corporate agenda; What if in a decade coding is no longer a skill in demand? Education priorities should not be driven by self-interested amateurs.
One of the more disturbing ideas promoted by NEPT appears on Page 39. The example comes from a school district in Wisconsin that used the Digital Promise educator micro-credentialing framework as a guide, teachers in the district took a technology proficiency self-assessment, which they used as a baseline for their personal professional growth. The teachers then worked by themselves and in collaborative teams to develop specific professional learning goals aligned to district strategic goals, which they submitted to district leadership for approval.
The NETP explains:
“Once these goals are approved, the teachers establish measurable benchmarks against which they can assess their progress. Both the goals and benchmarks are mapped to specific competencies, which, in turn, are tied to micro-credentials that can be earned once teachers have demonstrated mastery. Demonstrations of mastery include specific samples of their work, personal reflections, classroom artifacts, and student work and reflections, which are submitted via Google Forms to a committee of 7 to 10 teachers who review them and award micro-credentials.” (Emphasis added.)
Digital Promise is a technology industry Pied Piper and their supporters are the most famous in the pantheon of technology industry “philanthropy.” The list includes Bill and Melinda Gates, Chan and Zuckerberg, Bill and Flora Hewlett; Michael and Susan Dell, Laurene Jobs and on and on.
The proceeding three examples were selected somewhat randomly. They are not necessarily the most disturbing or most egregious examples of the technology industry driving education policy through the National Education Technology Plan. There are at least twenty more cases that are equally as eye-popping or more so. These are just three examples that demonstrate the unhealthy influence the technology industry has over education policy.
The ubiquitous power of the technology industry both in terms of money and political influence makes the gilded age look like a paragon of democratic action. They are selling bad products that are harming America’s world envied public education system. Our students have never scored particularly well on standardized tests when compared to the rest of the world, but they have outscored everyone by a wide margin when it came to creative thinking, developing new industries and advancing civilization.
These giant greed infested technology companies with their neo-liberal and libertarian ideologies have tremendous wealth which gives them great political power. However, as Diane Ravitch has said, “they are few, we are many.” The people still control. We need to keep doing what educators do. We need to educate America about this ongoing dangerous attack on our schools and our democracy. We need to keep exposing these profiteers lusting after tax dollars that are supposed to go to educate America’s children.